Two weeks ago, the UK Government introduced a new Environment Bill that will effectively replace EU legislation following Brexit. The bill will deal with air and water quality, tackling plastic pollution, protecting the climate and nature restoration. For many, the bill was hailed for being ‘ground-breaking’ and for finally putting environmental protections at the forefront of government priorities.

As part of the bill, the government is set to introduce an independent watchdog that would be responsible for overseeing environmental policies and holding the government accountable. The Office of Environmental Protection (OEP) will notably be replacing the role of the European Commission.

The bill passed its second reading on Monday and will now progress to the committee stage, one step closer to being enshrined in law. However, campaigners and environmentalists are not quite sold.

A Powerless Watchdog

One of the main criticisms of the bill stems from the unclear role of the OEP. Many believe that the watchdog should answer to parliament instead of the government, similar to the National Audit Office, to retain its independence. Unlike the European Commission, the OEP will not have the same power when it comes to successfully holding the government responsible when it does not abide by environmental regulations.

Kierra Box, a spokesperson at the environmental organisation Friends of the Earth, exclusively told Belong: “It’s not fully independent and doesn’t have full control over its own finances and definitely does not have the recourse to the kind of effective legal remedies including proper court cases and meaningful fines, which the European Court of Justice had.”

The size of the OEP has also been called into question. With a small staff of 120, many are concerned that the OEP will be immensely under-capacity allowing major environmental breaches from the government to effectively fall through the cracks.

Littered with Loopholes

The Environment Bill states that the government must set legally-binding targets in four key areas: air and water quality, plastic pollution and restoring nature. Conversely, other environmental issues were deregulated to a simple policy statement which isn’t part of the legislation at all.

The deadline for the four areas is set for October 2022, but the government has given themselves a leeway of 15 years meaning that no legal action can be taken against them until 2037. While the UK government wants to appear world-leading, the urgency that is required to tackle the climate crisis is profoundly lacking within the Environment Bill.

For many environmentalists, the lack of a non-regression clause within the bill or the EU withdrawal agreement particularly demonstrates the UK government’s flippant approach to the climate crisis.

Kierra Box explained: “What this bill could have done is made sure there was definitely no loophole here by having a non-regression clause saying we guarantee that future legislation, if it is found to lower environmental protection, simply won’t be passed.”

Without this legally-binding guarantee, there is no reassurance that the UK will maintain the high environmental standards set by the European Union. Additionally, these loopholes ensure that the government can still wriggle out of accountability if it suits them.

Trade Deals Further Weakening Environment

While the UK government has explained time and time again that trade deals will not lower our standards, it seems that without the backing of the European Union, the UK loses a lot of its international clout and will inevitably be forced to make huge sacrifices. 

Box explains: “If we look at what Malaysia and Indonesia have been saying recently, a lot of their trade pronouncements to the UK have been based on the UK lowering palm oil standards to accept less sustainable palm oil that’s responsible for deforestation across the region.”

However, even more frightening is a potential deal with the United States which notoriously has much lower standards, from hormone-pumped beef to genetically-modified goods.  

Belong spoke to Jonathan Bartley, the co-leader of the Green Party. “Our farmers could be forced to adopt a US-style of farming and food production – of which chlorinated chicken is only the most famous example.”

Unfortunately, it isn’t just the environment at risk if we make a deal with the US. Bartley said: “Even the NHS is threatened with greater privatisation as other countries may insist on competing to provide its services.”

Pollution Will Worsen Post-Brexit

Despite positioning itself as a world-leader when it comes to the environment, the UK government has been taken to court several times for its refusal to follow EU standards when it comes to air pollution. Without the power of the EU to fine the government, many of the environmental standards that we have enjoyed under the union are likely to backslide significantly which Britain simply cannot afford.

In London, millions are at risk of living with illegal air pollution and research from the British Heart Foundation reveals a large number of deaths linked to toxic air. Furthermore, according to the BBC, serious pollution incidents recorded in 2018/2019 have been the highest since 2014/15.

 “If we do not have an office of environmental protection that is able to mount the same level of legal challenge and to issue fines or other sanctions as appropriate, it seems hugely unlikely that we’ll continue to have the level of ambition and control that we’ve had as a member of the EU,” said Kierra Box.

Long History of Empty Promises

This year alone, the UK committed to achieving net-zero emissions by the year 2050 and declared a climate emergency. However, behind all the grandiose gestures seems to be nothing but empty words.

A report from the Committee on Climate Change shows that we’re already on track to miss the 2050 deadline until we make significant changes to making green sources of energy cheaper, tackling household consumption and cutting the cost of low-carbon electricity.

According to Jonathan Bartley, Conservative governments have not taken the urgent steps required to tackle the climate crisis: “Over the last few years they have removed investment from renewable energy, pulling the rug from under the solar industry and making it harder to develop onshore wind. Their environmental policies are one gimmick after another and when you look closely there is nothing of any real substance.”

“Over the last five to six years, we’ve seen a huge number of cuts in the monitoring and enforcing agencies that check on air quality and the quality of water at beaches and bathing conditions,” Box added.

All this evidence suggests that the United Kingdom only wants to appear as if it is taking environmental protection seriously, but is not prepared to do the heavy lifting required to stick to targets or fund green initiatives. This Environment Bill is another farce attempting to be more substantial than it is – an empty initiative that the government hopes we fall for. The truth is, the bill will not hold a light to the EU protections that we have enjoyed so far, especially in this current climate when we need tough and unswerving legislation.

However, with a General Election making its way to the country on December 12th, it is unclear how the Environment Bill will progress – or if it will even progress at all.

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Aisha Mohamed